English Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead thought that beauty was determined by an entity or community’s ability to harmonize contrasting elements. Therefore, ugliness could come from either an excess of order that would lead to monotony or an excess of chaos that leads to confusion. I think Whitehead would have had a lot to say about Maria Sharapova has an odd habit of either dominating big tennis events such as her title runs at the 2006 U.S. Open and 2008 Australian Open or her penchant for upset losses 2007 U.S. Open and 2008 Wimbledon. Sharapova seems to win or lose in a one-sided fashion. She might crush Justine Henin while Henin is riding a historic winning streak or she might be trounced by Serena Williams or Ana Ivanovic at the 2007 Australian and French Opens.
The reason for this is Sharapova can only play one way. When that way is working, when she has perfect conditions, feels healthy, is moving reasonably well and picking her spots with her serve she can humble a great player. When any of that is not working and she is forced to move during points and is not able to dictate right off of the serve or return, Sharapova looks very average. She has a monotonous game. Jim Courier called it “ball machine tennis” last summer.
If I am reading Courier correctly, he thinks Sharapova and other practitioners of “ball machine tennis” like the ball in certain spots and attempt to rip winners as though they were being fed balls. The problem is a good or even decent opponent can hit balls to a player that do not land in the predictable spot of a ball machine’s placement pattern. Therefore, Sharapova when serving and returning well can force her opponents to hit defensive shots to predictable spots on the court and the rest is easy. If the surface, clay especially, or her opponent are able to absorb the first strike and do something with the ball, Sharapova’s simple plan of attack gets exposed. Whitehead would say she suffers from an ugliness of monotony.
If we are looking for games on the WTA that harmonize contrasts, Henin and the Mauresmo of 2006 come to mind. Kim Clijsters at her best could play great defense and also crack the ball when given the opportunity. Steffi Graf before her knee injuries could run all day with Olympic levels of speed and slice the ball back until she got an opening. One of my favorite Graf moments came when she had lost a lot of her speed and was down 4-6, 4-5 Martina Hingis in the 1999 French Open final. Hingis came to net and Graf needed to hit a backhand passing shot despite almost exclusively hitting a one handed slice. Graf prepared well and hit a textbook top spin passing shot to win the point. All players have their tendencies, but when Graf was faced with a key point in which the match and championship were hanging in the balance she used variety and hit the right shot for the situation rather than hitting the comfortable shot. She played the shot for the situation despite pressure to rely on old habits. Situational recognition is something that ball machine tennis will never produce.
If I look at the ATP side of things, Roger Federer’s game obviously harmonizes a wide variety of shots even if a shot-maker such as James Blake occasionally lapses into chaos. Rafael Nadal should be commended for playing doubles over the past few years to help his short game and for developing a counter-intuitive ability to flatten out his strokes when the surface or situation might demand it. Great players normally win when everything is going well. Champions can win when things are not going well. Heart has a lot to do with this quality of a champion, but so too does variety. Players who are too patterned or too chaotic fail to be as viable in most situations as players that have developed true variety.
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